Why Keep a Lonely Stance on Cuba?

William D. Rogers, a Washington lawyer, was assistant secretary and undersecretary of state in the Ford administration, 1974-77

For more than a third of a century, U.S. policy toward Cuba has been nothing if not consistent. Emerson may have been a bit harsh when he called consistency “the hobgoblin of little minds, adored by little statesmen . . . .” Constancy has its virtues. It is no small thing that we have highlighted the inhumanity of communism and tyranny by our steadfast isolation of Cuba.

The U.S. policy of isolating Cuba was locked in place in the few months after Fidel Castro’s bloody ending of the Fulgencio Batista regime in December 1959, his nationalization of U.S. investments and his suppression of political opposition soon thereafter. Not much has changed in Cuba since then. Four decades on, Castro remains the ultimate arbiter, intolerant of dissent and with an iron control of the economy.

But if neither U.S. nor Cuban policy has changed, the world has. Communism has collapsed in Europe. Soviet global ambitions have also collapsed--as have the massive Soviet subsidies that kept the Cuban economy afloat. In the mid-1970s, Cuba entertained intercontinental pretensions. It played a decisive role in the war in Angola. But that war and the other vicious Cold War conflicts in Southeast Asia and Africa have flickered out. The economies of the world have merged and taken off. The call everywhere is for free markets, trade expansion and the migration of capital wherever opportunity beckons--all nightmarish to true communists.

Latin America has undergone a revolution--and not, as Castro had hoped, a Marxist revolution. Now, with the single exception of Cuba, every country in the hemisphere boasts a representative government.


It is therefore no surprise that thoughtful people are beginning to think it may be time to take another look. Not that Cuba is a crisis issue for the United States--apart from the decreasingly productive economy and the increasing misery of 11 million people just off our shores. Kosovo, financial turbulence, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian peace process--all have better claims to pride of place on the list of Washington’s foreign policy worries.

Admittedly, the United States is pretty lonely on Cuba. Only one or two friends vote with the U.S. each year when the U.N. General Assembly comes to consider its annual resolution on Cuba; all our significant allies except Israel condemn our policy. The pope’s January visit to Cuba made clear the Vatican’s unhappiness with U.S. sanctions and their impact on the livelihoods of ordinary Cubans. Only the most strenuous State Department gymnastics have avoided conflict with Europe over the Helms-Burton Act’s effort to penalize European companies trading with Cuba.

Yet in the grand sweep of foreign affairs today, Cuba is small stuff. The island exerts no weight in world counsels. It is irrelevant to the prospects for democracy and economic development in the hemisphere. Its military significance beyond its own shores is zero.

The Cuban challenge for U.S. policy is not the present. The big question for our diplomacy is that moment sometime in the future when Castro’s hold on the island loosens.


History teaches that the collapse of communism in any one country does not have predictable consequences. It can be bloody, as in Romania, or peaceful, as in Czechoslovakia. It can lead quickly to a successful open economy, as in Poland, or to corruption, massive theft of public property and risible governance, as in Russia. The Castro regime could end badly and bloodily, perhaps even with open conflict involving Miami exiles returning to claim their stolen property. Or it could produce a soft landing, perhaps easing the island quickly into prosperity and democracy. What is predictable is that the policy of the United States will have consequences for the outcome and will probably even affect its timing.

Thus the suggestion recently sent to the president by 15 moderate senators that he appoint a national bipartisan commission on Cuba. The initiative originated with Sen. John Warner (R-Va.); he persuaded 14 of his colleagues, including John Chafee (R-R.I.), Craig Thomas (R-Wyo.), Christopher Dodd (D-Conn.) and Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), to join his appeal to the president.

The model is the National Bipartisan Commission on Central America--popularly known as the Kissinger Commission--appointed by President Reagan 14 years ago. The Kissinger effort on Central America extended over a six-month period. The committee included a Supreme Court justice, academics, trade unionists, distinguished Democrats such as Robert Strauss and notable Republicans such as the future Treasury secretary, Nicholas Brady. It sifted through a mountain of testimony about the murderous civil wars in El Salvador and Nicaragua, traveled the region to hear the views of citizens and came to a measured assessment of the effectiveness of then-U.S. policy in bringing closure to those bloody conflicts. Something similar, it is supposed, would help to take a fresh look at our Cuba policy.

The issue for a bipartisan Cuban commission is not whether U.S. policy toward Cuba for the past four decades has succeeded or failed. The commission’s purpose is not to judge the past but to assess the future. It can jettison the baggage of acrimony and accusation that has marred so much of the debate over Cuba in recent years.

The Cuba debate is not a contest over who despises tyranny more. It is about what policy will serve the national interest. The commission should recommend what this country ought to do to hasten the end of the authoritarian communism in Cuba, alleviate the hunger and misery of the Cuban people, assist that nation on the long road to freedom and prosperity--now, and most crucially, when the Castro era finally comes to its dismal end.

William D. Rogers, a Washington lawyer, was assistant secretary and undersecretary of state in the Ford administration, 1974-77.